Friday, October 21, 2011

MPs debate Hillsborough documents petition

On 17 October, MPs debated the e-petition signed by over 140,000 people calling for full disclosure of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

The petition was prompted by the Cabinet Office's decision to appeal a ruling by the Information Commissioner ordering information relating to the disaster to be disclosed to the BBC. In April 2009, the BBC made a request for all information provided to Margaret Thatcher in April 1989 relating to the disaster and minutes of meetings attended by the then Prime Minister at which the disaster was discussed.

After a nine-month delay, the Cabinet Office refused the request citing several exemptions, including information relating to the formulation or development of government policy and ministerial communications. The BBC requested an internal review. Following a further seven-month delay, the Cabinet Office upheld it's decision and cited three additional exemptions.

The BBC appealed to the Information Commissioner. On 20th July 2011, the Information Commissioner found that the public interest favoured disclosure and ordered the information to be released. The Commissioner's decision also criticised the Cabinet Office for the "unjustified and excessive delays" in its handling of the request.

Responding to the debate, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, apologised for government's handling of the request and gave a reassurance that the papers would be released with minimal redaction to the families first and then to the general public:
The reason for this debate and for the motion behind it concerns the Cabinet Office’s decision not to disclose papers relating to the disaster in response to a freedom of information request from a BBC reporter. I want to state very clearly that the Government’s position has absolutely nothing to do with attempting to suppress the release of those papers or to somehow hide the truth. I am sorry that the way the Government responded to the FOI request caused anxiety among the families and concern on Merseyside and beyond.

The Government firmly believe that the right way to release the papers is through the Hillsborough independent panel—to the families first and then to the public. The families should have the papers, and they should not have them filtered through politicians or the media. We therefore support the Hillsborough independent panel and today’s motion. We want full disclosure to the panel of all documents relating to Hillsborough, including Cabinet minutes. Those documents should be uncensored and unredacted. Indeed, the full unredacted Cabinet Office papers on Hillsborough have already been made available to the panel. That includes minutes of the meetings of the Cabinet immediately following the disaster...

The Government are not seeking to avoid the publication of Cabinet minutes or any other Hillsborough papers. The Cabinet papers on Hillsborough can be published, and the Government will do nothing to prevent the panel from publishing them or indeed whatever it so decides. The panel will release the full picture of what happened at Hillsborough, but in a way that is respectful of the families.

The panel’s terms of reference envisage minimal redaction to avoid junior officials’ names and addresses being published; to avoid signatures being available for copying; and to ensure that the Data Protection Act is not breached. It might also be necessary to redact sensitively private and personal information specific to the victims. However, it will be the role of the panel to ensure that any redactions are kept to a minimum.

The principle is clear: full publication and minimal redaction, and the panel seeing all of the papers, uncensored and unredacted—as the families have rightly demanded: the whole loaf, not snippets. I stand ready to do anything I can to aid the independent panel in completing its task.
You can read the debate in full here.
See also Martin Rosenbaum's blog posts here and here.

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